In this article, Rethinking Schools editor and language arts teacher Linda Christensen describes a section of “Stealing Home,” a unit she created about ways the homes of people of color have been stolen through “race riots” and “urban renewal” in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Los Angeles’ Chávez Ravine; and Portland, Oregon’s Albina neighborhood. This is the first of a two-part series about the unit.
I teach language arts, so why would I teach my students about the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot?
In language arts circles, we discuss reading as a window to the world, but in a country plagued with foreclosures and homelessness, we need to question the world we’re gazing at: How are contemporary evictions a historical reach from the past? What has happened to black and brown communities? Why do people of color have less inherited wealth than whites? The untold history—the buried stories—reveals patterns that affect our students’ current lives, from eviction notices to the hunger of deep poverty. I can wax poetic about the importance of story in students’ lives, but reading literature of poverty and despair without offering a historical explanation leaves students with little understanding about how things came to be the way they are. And that’s worth reading and writing about.
The term “race riot” does not adequately describe the events of May 31–June 1, 1921, in Tulsa. Though some sources labeled the episode a “race riot” or a “race war,” implying that both Blacks and whites might be equally to blame for lawlessness and violence, the historical record documents that what occurred was a sustained and murderous assault on black lives and property.
This assault was met by a brave but unsuccessful armed defense of their community by some black World War I veterans and others. During the night and day of the riot, deputized whites killed more than 300 African Americans; they looted and burned to the ground 40 square blocks, including 1,265 African American homes, hospitals, schools, churches, and 150 businesses. White deputies and members of the National Guard arrested and detained 6,000 black Tulsans who were released only upon being vouched for by a white employer or another white citizen; 9,000 African Americans were left homeless and living in tents well into the winter of 1921.
“Burned Out of Homes and History: Unearthing the Silenced Voices of the Tulsa Race Riot” is from the Rethinking Schools publication Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word by Linda Christensen.
FEBRUARY 08, 2000: After two years of meetings, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission recommended Friday that direct payments be made to survivors and descendants of riot victims. The 11-member panel also called for a memorial to the dead, scholarships and a tax checkoff program to fund economic development in the Greenwood district. View full story.